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The great debate: An indepth look at natural versus artificial turf sports fields

Examining the pros and cons of both types of sports field surfaces

May 6, 2024  By Dr. Sara Stricker & Cam Lawrie

Natural turf field at Alumni Stadium which suffered from extensive sideline damage and extreme compaction (Spring 2011). Photo: Guelph Turfgrass Institute

In the realm of sports field construction and maintenance, one debate has persisted for decades: natural grass or synthetic turf? Each option comes with its own set of advantages and drawbacks, making the decision a complex one for sports teams, facility managers, and stakeholders alike. 

The upcoming 2026 FIFA World Cup has spotlighted this debate and has mandated that the games must be played on natural (or hybrid) grass surfaces. This is forcing eight of the 16 stadiums in North America to undergo extensive renovations. Many of the renovated stadiums will only be able to maintain the natural grass temporarily and will be forced to switch back to synthetic turf after the World Cup. In making the choice between real and synthetic turf playing fields, we need to weigh the pros and cons of both options.

The case for real turf
Temperature: According to research at Penn State, the surface temperature of synthetic turf is 20 to 30 degrees Celsius higher than natural turf on an average playing day. The maximum surface temperature of synthetic turf recorded was 93 degrees Celsius on a sunny day in Utah.

Environmental benefits: Living plants absorb carbon dioxide, mitigate air pollution, and provide habitat for soil microorganisms. Synthetic turf often uses rubber infill created from recycled tires to keep the plastic grass fibres standing straight, which can release micro-plastics into the environment. Newer infill options have been developed using coconut husk and cork, but there are concerns around mould and human health. 


Player safety: Proponents of natural grass argue that the living plants provide a softer and more forgiving playing surface, reducing the risk of injuries for athletes. Grass fields offer higher natural shock absorption, which can help cushion falls and impacts during game play, potentially lowering the incidence of sports-related injuries such as concussions and joint sprains. Natural grass allows for shoes to turn and slide easier and has the capacity to re-grow in damaged areas. Some athletes have now mandated that they will only play on natural grass, an argument strengthened by Aaron Rodgers’ recent injury on a synthetic turf field. That being said, newer technologies are improving regarding surface hardness and rotational resistance – today’s synthetic turf is not the AstroTurf of the 1950s. 

The case for synthetic turf
Durability and maintenance: Synthetic turf is renowned for its durability and low maintenance requirements. Natural grass requires mowing, fertilization, and pest management which is unnecessary for synthetic surfaces. Note that synthetic turf is not entirely maintenance-free and requires washing, brushing, infilling, and regular repairs.


All-weather playability: One of the primary advantages of synthetic turf is its ability to withstand adverse weather conditions. Unlike natural grass, which can become muddy and slippery in wet weather or worn down in high-traffic areas, synthetic turf remains consistent in performance regardless of rain, snow, or intense sunlight. This ensures consistent playability throughout the year, regardless of environmental factors. This factor is especially important in Canada where our summer growing season is much shorter. For example, the CFL’s Grey Cup is typically hosted in November; not exactly ideal growth conditions for us at that time in most of Canada. 

Adaptable utilization: Synthetic turf allows for increased utilization of sports fields, as it can withstand heavy use without deteriorating. Unlike natural grass fields, which may require periods of rest and recovery to maintain their health, synthetic turf can accommodate continuous usage, making it ideal for multi-purpose facilities and venues hosting frequent sporting events. Concerts, rodeos, or even monster truck smash-ups can act as supplemental income for stadiums with synthetic turf during the off-season.

Alumni Stadium FieldTurf surface from 2012-2023.
Photo: Guelph Turfgrass Symposium

Case study: Alumni Stadium at the University of Guelph
The football stadium at the University of Guelph is currently under construction, and the turf industry has been asking us, “Will they put in real or synthetic turf?”

Alumni Stadium was built in 1970 as an open-air football field with uncovered stadium seats on the west side and additional seating on the grass hill on the east side. The playing surface was natural grass until the renovation in 2011 which installed FieldTurf Revolution synthetic turf in stripes of alternating shades of green, with a red and black checker-board pattern in the end zones. One of the deciding factors in switching from natural turf to synthetic was the 2007 OUA football season – Alumni Stadium had been used for practice and then unexpectedly was needed for the Yates Cup Championship game. The natural grass was unable to withstand this level of abuse, resulting in huge divots and excessive compaction. This can be dangerous to athletes, leading to increased risk of trip-and-fall or concussion injuries.

The synthetic turf surface renovation which was completed in 2012 brought the field up to the standards of the Canadian Football League, and Alumni Stadium has since been used by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the Toronto Argonauts for practice and official games. The most recent renovation project in 2017 unveiled a new pavilion with updated locker rooms and a high-tech therapy room for the athletes.

Arguably the biggest factor in the data between natural and synthetic fields is the question of lifespan, and what happens to the plastic when it is no longer useful. There are some ways of recycling or “upcycling” discarded synthetic turf, such as the construction of bunkers on golf courses, but most often the used synthetic turf will unfortunately end up in a landfill. A synthetic turf surface will typically need replacement within eight to 10 years, but that will be highly impacted by environment, traffic, and number of playing hours. FieldTurf Revolution, the surface used at Alumni Stadium, boasts a lifespan of 10 to 13 years. A few clicks on the internal mental calculator tells us that the Alumni Stadium surface is due for a refresh because it was installed 13 years ago.

After much thought, the athletics department at the University of Guelph made the decision to re-install synthetic turf. This is largely due to the use schedule of the field, with the majority of play happening in September to November. The synthetic turf has allowed us to program for our own football season, the regional high school football season, and the Guelph Minor Football Association deeper into the fall. We even hosted OFSAA Football Bowl series from November 28–30 in 2022! The synthetic surface can take more traffic than a grass field would ever tolerate. It allows us to host similar groups earlier in the spring season as well.

The new synthetic field at Alumni Stadium in Guelph is Greenfields AllSport Diamond and the design will be very similar, with the addition of permanent soccer lines. The renovation is already well underway and will be completed with plenty of time for the football season which starts on Aug. 24, 2024. This synthetic surface has passed the FIFA Quality Programme for Football Turf in all categories, including shock absorption, ball roll, and rotational resistance. FIFA outlines clear guidelines for natural, hybrid, and synthetic turf surfaces. Currently, the preferred surface for use in FIFA is a hybrid system which provides a balance between the cushion of natural and durability of synthetic, but fully synthetic surfaces are also allowed under specific conditions. 

The decision between natural and synthetic turf for sports fields is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Each option offers its own unique set of advantages and drawbacks, which must be carefully considered in the context of specific requirements and constraints. While real turf may be preferred by some athletes and offers environmental benefits, synthetic turf offers durability, all-weather playability, and increased use potential. Ultimately, the choice between real and synthetic turf should be based on a comprehensive evaluation to find a balance between budget, maintenance capabilities, hours of play, environmental considerations, and player safety concerns.

Dr. Sara Stricker is the communications and outreach co-ordinator at the Guelph Turfgrass Institute. Cam Lawrie is facility supervisor for University of Guelph Athletics.

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